Prestigious European Awards for Oxford Researchers

A broad spectrum of Oxford academics have today been awarded major European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants to fund cutting-edge projects into the future of work, trade, economic theory and science.

The highly-coveted awards, funded through the European Union, are each worth more than 1 million euros and will allow the researchers to build their own teams, carry out pioneering research, and expand learning into exciting new areas.

Dr Abi Adams-Prassl has won an award for her FEMPOWER project, ‘Measuring Female Bargaining Power & Inefficient Family Decision Making’.

When analysing household decision-making, economists usually assume a utopian scenario characterised by cooperation and commitment. Not only do a range of common family behaviours fall outside the scope of these frameworks but, crucially, their policy prescriptions can result in adverse and unintended consequences. For example, some policy interventions aimed at improving women’s bargaining power have been found to increase violence against women in some contexts.

FEMPOWER will harness a number of new large-scale data sources and develop innovative empirical tools to interrogate how family decision-making works in contexts including domestic violence and divorce.

Dr Adams-Prassl said ‘I’m thrilled to receive this award, and for FEMPOWER to have the backing of the European Research Council. A better understanding of household decision-making is crucial to ensuring policy design that reduces the likelihood of harmful consequences for women. In our current climate of economic uncertainty and increased pressure on families, the aims of this project have never been more important.’

Dr Alexander Teytelboym has been granted funding for DUALMARKETS, ‘Duality in Market Design: Theory and Applications’.

One of the first problems students encounter in economics is how to allocate a divisible resource – like a cake – among people who have limited budgets. In practice, such allocation problems often involve indivisible resources. For example, the government might decide to run an auction in order to figure out which electricity companies should build new power stations (which are indivisible). Economists use tools from the field of market design to suggest how best to run such auctions. It turns out that allocating a cake is a lot easier than procuring power stations. DUALMARKETS will develop new tools to better allocate indivisible resources among market participants with limited budgets.

Dr Teytelboym said: ‘I’m delighted and honoured to receive the ERC Starting Grant. DUALMARKETS will tackle market design problems in which participants cannot always afford what they want to have. My main aim in this project is to inject ideas from classic microeconomics into the theory and applications of market design. The grant will allow me to focus on time-intensive theoretical research, foster new collaborations, and hopefully inspire young economists to work on market design.’

Employment law Professor Jeremias Adams-Prassl has been awarded funding to set up an interdisciplinary team and rethink ‘Employment law for a world of algorithmic management’.

Whether it’s hiring new staff, managing a large workforce, or even selecting workers for redundancies, sophisticated algorithms are increasingly taking over traditional management tasks. While they have successfully been used to catch out insider trading and help staff find career opportunities in large organisations, things can just as quickly go wrong: last month’s A-level fiasco demonstrates the (entirely predictable) risks of blindly entrusting life-changing decisions to automation.

Professor Adams-Prassl’s team will examine how we should go about regulating AI at work, promoting the importance of social dialogue in deciding how to adapt software and data-capture to specific circumstances.

On receiving his award, Professor Adams-Prassl said: ‘I’m delighted to receive this award, which will help us to challenge the myths of the future of work. There’s nothing predetermined in tech development – it’s our choices today that will ensure that tomorrow’s workplace is innovative, fair, and transparent.’

Dr Natalia Ares from the Department of Materials has been awarded a grant for her project entitled ‘Quantum Thermodynamics in the Solid-state’.

Dr Ares aims to link motion with heat and work in the nanoscale. Although classical thermodynamics has been established since the 19th century, quantum thermodynamics is still in its infancy experimentally, due to the lack of control over thermodynamic processes in this regime. Harnessing electromechanical circuits in the solid-state, Natalia will build a platform to study the efficiency and power of quantum engines. This platform could inform the study of biomotors and the design of efficient on-chip nanomachines . It will pave the way for experimental tests to concepts such as work in the quantum regime, quantum fluctuations and autonomous machines. The research will have applications in both classical and quantum computing.

Rob Weatherup, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials, has been awarded a Starting Grant for his project entitled ‘Extending Interface Science to Atmospheric-pressure Reactions’ (EXISTAR).

This aims to develop new characterisation techniques to observe the interfaces between materials and their environment during operation.

These interfaces determine the performance of materials used for storing energy in batteries or removing toxic gases from car exhausts, but the dense liquid or gas environments they are surrounded by makes them hard to observe with existing techniques. Rob’s project will develop special windows that are transparent to X-rays, electrons and neutrons, through which the chemical reactions occurring on the surface of electrodes in batteries and on catalysts in high temperature reactors can be observed. This will help us to understand how current materials can be improved and why certain combinations of materials fail faster than others.

A huge range of research problems can potentially benefit from these new interface-sensitive techniques, but Rob’s initial focus will be sustainable technologies that are needed for a low-carbon economy. This includes low-cost, safe battery systems to store the energy of intermittent renewable energy sources for when it is needed, and identifying new catalysts that can be used to convert waste carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral liquid fuels and chemicals. Progress in these areas is key to meeting our emissions targets and limiting the extent of man-made climate change in the future.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With European Research Council grants, the EU is leveraging the talent and curiosity of some of the best young researchers in Europe. Their ideas are set to break fresh ground and open new ways to deal with pressing challenges in the areas of health, energy and digital technologies, as well as many other fields. Our ambition to effectively tackle current and future crises depends on our strong will to continuously and increasingly support top research at the frontiers of our knowledge.”

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